Have you heard this story?
Review of Empire of Chains by Ryan D. Mueller
Was John Steinbeck fantasy adventure fiction’s greatest fanboy? His first novel, Cup of Gold, is a straight forward-pirate adventure that is also a retelling of the adventures of Captain Morgan (the English pirate they named the rum after). Towards the end of his life Steinbeck finally began working on his life’s obsession: the legend of King Arthur. Steinbeck spent the last decades of his life re-writing and retelling Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. He never finished the work. What classifies Steinbeck’s first and last works as fanboy efforts are that they are not original works, but the result of enthusiasm that has been driven to imitation. Unlike other Steinbeck works, that were inspired by real life events around him, Steinbeck’s first and last works were extensions of the fiction and historical tales that he loved. I assert that is what separates the fan from the fanboy; the fan enjoys the media, the fanboy uses the media as a launch pad for his own ideas. While some (Goethe) might dismiss genre works or fan fiction as coarse emulation, I think Steinbeck is proof that purposely derivative works can still be art.
Ryan W. Mueller’s book Empire of Chains (2017 available through Amazon) is an attempt to recreate the classic high fantasy epic. Mueller describes his book (at www.sffworld.com) as
“an epic fantasy for people who miss classic epic fantasy…I set out with the intention of giving fantasy readers a lot of those comfortable elements. They're the kinds of stories I still have a soft spot for. It's full of action, and I think I did an interesting twist on the dark lord trope.”
Mueller is obviously an enthusiastic fan of the genre, and we can all understand his desire to appreciate fantasy fiction by contributing to it. Mueller’s story is boiler plate stuff. The evil emperor executes the mother of a teenage noble because the mom was plotting to over throw the emperor. She was guilty, no argument there. But the daughter of the dead woman grows into adulthood bent on revenge. Through careful research in her castle’s library, when she isn’t practicing archery or sword play with the castle guards, the young noble woman (Nadia) learns of a spell that can kill the Emperor. He is not the kind of emperor that can be taken out by a rotted piece of horse flesh or a stray arrow to the eye. The Emperor killing spell is called “White Fire” and to cast the spell she needs to obtain three scrolls. She eventually pulls everyone she meets and knows into this quest.
The interesting hook in Mueller’s story is that evil emperor knows of Nadia’s plan and indeed wants Nadia to carry out. The emperor can “read the webs of fate” and he can see all (or most) possible futures. It is the emperor that is indirectly guiding Nadia and her crew. He pushes them to pursue his assassination and tries his best to protect them while they are doing it. The Emperor believes that everything he is doing is for the greater good of humanity and he tells himself that this cruel overlord shtick is nothing more than an act and that deep down he is a good guy. This also provides a wonderful parallel to Nadia's journey, because like the evil Emperor she is willing to make sacrifices and hurt people for the greater good. It is a wonderfully interesting premise. I only wish Mueller was able to write prose as interesting as his premise, and that he'd been able to bring his novel to a satisfactory conclusion.
Mueller takes a number of risks with his writing, which do succeed in making the writing style different than other epic fantasy novels but ultimately undercut his story. First, most of his story is told through dialog and Mueller has no talent for dialog or any sense of the pacing of speech. The characters in Empire of Chains talk as if they are in a bad radio play and lampshade all their actions. For example, when one character is hiding in a closet he over hears the guards outside talking to each other aloud about whether or not they are going to search the closet. A character falls off a bridge into rushing water and the other characters have to time argue before jumping in after. The characters are always speaking aloud their entire litany of feelings and their own personal logic. Consider the following excerpt.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” Danica said. “I just don’t care for the thought of spending so long in dark cave. Not that there is anything to do about it. I just have to approach it with the best attitude possible.”
While the character of Danica most resembles a summer camp song leader in attitudes and platitudes all the characters speak in essentially the same manner. When given the choice of being subtle or overtly explaining something, Mueller’s characters always go the overt route. The content of the conversations is also redundant. In almost every chapter Nadia tells people “that she is going to kill the Emperor.”
In addition to being repetitive and clumsy with dialog, Mueller also doesn’t risk a large vocabulary in his writing. I understand the desire and the need to cut back on the use of purple prose in fantasy fiction, but Mueller writes at close to a fifth-grade level. Furthermore, he uses a lot of modern colloquialisms. For example, character’s don’t run away they “take off”. It might be acceptable if the narrator had a voice that justified this, but there is no strong voice to the prose. Everything is written in a tight third person that switches between the main characters.
Finally, I personally disliked the top down view and tell-not-show use of meta-vocabulary Mueller and his characters employ to describe things. When discussing a story or a video game, I might use the terms quest, party, hero or monster, but I don’t use them to describe my day-to-day life. Remember Mueller’s character communicate in very modern English. There is a town that is literally terrorized by something referred to only as ‘a monster’, and when describing a transcontinental cave system the guide says ‘there will be monsters’. Fans of fantasy know that a monster is scarier and more monstrous when it has a name. Mueller describes his world from a fantasy fan's view point using a modern genre fan's vocabulary. The use of generic and repetitive words makes the world feel flat and poorly thought-out. In one particular paragraph, I noted every sentence had the word hero in it. Mueller should come up with proper names for his monsters and crack out a thesaurus from time to time.
There are more things that disappointed in this book. The ending was anti-climatic and poorly paced. The two main characters got shallower as the book went on and not deeper. Halfway through the book, God shows up and the characters start having discussions about how to maintain faith in an absent God in a cruel world. The role of religion and faith in this world had not been explored and comes out of left field. There were many pointless descriptions of combat and tangents the lead nowhere. I think Nadia actually ran away from home three times and then went home again to have the same conversation with her father. The book is overlong. It was not a fun book to read. I lower my bar for self-published works, but this one was a chore. I pushed through so I could leave an honest review.
Steinbeck said of the Le Morte de Arthur, that he didn’t care as much for the content of the book as much as he loved the language. The book was beautifully written in his opinion but it didn’t do the characters in these epic stories justice. In Steinbeck’s retelling of the Arthurian legend, he puts that right. Mueller’s story suffers from the opposite problem; there is are interesting ideas in the Empire of Chains, but the author didn’t care about the art of writing enough to give us prose or characters that pop off the page. Like Mallory’s Le Morte de Arthur, Empire of Chains gives us lots of battles but not enough character (ironic considering how much dialog there is). I hope someday Empire of Chains will get the fanboy treatment and we finally get an exploration of this corrupted, clairvoyant and well-meaning Emperor. I believe Mueller has a good story to tell, but I think he will need somebody else to do the telling.